Jim Hopkins: Time will pay heed to the wisdom as well as the wit

We weren't friends. Acquaintances, yes, but not friends. Although we could have been. At least, that's what I thought.

Which may reveal an owlish and uncertain fellow's infinite capacity for self-delusion.

Or, more likely, it's testament to David Lange's ability to make people feel happy and energised and grander than they usually were.

It is a rare thing to meet someone who speaks to our dreams, either through message or manner, and the sheer novelty of such encounters is enough to have us craving more.

Good nature was part of the magic, of course. If bonhomie were an energy source, David Lange would have been a power station. But there was more than the warmth of ebullience. There was attitude, too.

It may seem a strange comparison but the first time I saw him interviewed, I felt I was watching a political John Lennon.

There was the same sharp, wry, irreverent, mocking humour; the same intolerance of self-importance; and the same merry contempt for institutions.

In the Beatles song Penny Lane there's that unsettling line about the nurse: "Though she feels she's in a play, she is anyway."

I always felt David Lange understood that surreal truth; I felt he had some abiding sense of life's artifice. And the hollowness of cliches and the inherent limitations of politics.

Perhaps his resignation quip - "I've changed my mind" - proves the point. Perhaps not. Perhaps it doesn't matter.

Perhaps what matters is that he was a player who scorned the standard pious and pompous political script. He never took himself too seriously. Or his colleagues, either.

One day, long after he'd left Parliament, while we were noodling down the highway en route to Rotorua for a debate, I remember him telling his companions in the van a hearteningly cynical tale of his first parliamentary encounter with an eminent senior member.

This distinguished personage was particularly keen to advise his novice chum not any of the many things a politician might achieve for others but rather what they might acquire for themselves.

All manner of privileges were apparently available to the young Mr Lange, and all free of charge. He was, he said, amazed to find that the Member for Mangere was actually entitled to join the Invercargill Public Library - at no cost to himself. Even when he had an overdue book.

Over the years there were a number of stories like that, usually at debates and the like. The first such was actually one that David himself organised as a fundraiser, for the party or his own electorate.

And later there were others, for community groups hither and yon. And even some on television.

And you always looked forward to hearing him, and once you had, you thought, "Gee, I wish I'd thought of that."

But some of the most memorable lines weren't funny. In the late 70s, we took part in a brief debate series on TV2. Brief in every sense. There weren't many of them and each lasted only 30 minutes.

The brief was to be waggish and witty and people said we were, until the night David stood up and delivered a speech of the most sonorous gravity.

To an anarchic ear, it almost sounded platitudinous.

"What happened?" I asked him afterwards. "Where were the jokes?

"There's a time to stop being funny," he said. "If you don't, people won't take you seriously. And I want them to."

He was about to become Labour's deputy leader and he knew what that new role required: a more sombre and substantial persona. So the joking stopped, and didn't start again until he was on the ninth floor.

To this day, I see that decision to curb wit as proof David Lange's judgment was as substantial as his intellect.

Which never dimmed. In his time as a private citizen, David Lange addressed many conferences as a keynote speaker.

At one such, in Queenstown, there were questions after his speech, including an obvious one. "How did he, as a former Prime Minister, see the future for Australia and New Zealand?"

There was no florid rhetoric in the answer, just a blunt truth.

"How do I see the future," he mused. "Well, basically, Australia's a quarry and New Zealand's a theme park."

It was a harsh and disquieting prediction. But time has borne it out.

Indeed, its chill accuracy is confirmed every time some wittering young journalist bubbles on about Middle Earth and the tourism benefits of The Lord of the Rings.

So perhaps we must accept it, as his audience ruefully did. "He's right," they said. "Dammit!" After he'd gone.

And now he has.

He was remembered this week more for his wit than his wisdom. But time will change that. Time will pay more heed to the quarry than the quips.

Indeed, time may decide his greatest legacy wasn't the domestic comfort of an anti-nuclear policy but the more painful effort to make us more in the world than a scenic Disneyland.

New Zealand had two truly revolutionary governments in the 20th century. One led by Michael Joseph Savage, the other by David Lange, who sought to undo much of what his predecessor had done. And that second revolution isn't over yet.

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